No, it’s not 1968. It’s 1964.
Earlier this year, New York magazine ran a piece by Jonathan Chait titled “It Is Not 1968.” It’s a good article and well worth your time, but the basic premise is that despite the social upheaval at home and violence around the world, 2016 is not much like one of the most iconic and chaotic years in American history.
Chait is right, it’s not 1968. It’s 1964.
Let’s start by looking at this from the political perspective. The Democrats have nominated a perceived center-left insider over the vocal objections from the far left. There is mistrust within the party and protests at the convention, but backers of the nominee believe that person to be a liberal at heart who can actually get things done. A movement demanding basic rights for African Americans is being embraced by the nominee but it’s not clear that the love is mutual. And, the Democratic nominee is running to fulfill the legacy of a former rival who was elected as an inspirational young figure.1 The economy is in pretty good shape, and liberals argue that the time to drastically expand the social safety net is upon us.
The Republicans, on the other hand, have nominated a far-right figure known for inflaming racial tensions.2 The GOP establishment fought the nominee tooth and nail, preferring a more moderate and electable candidate. But the nominee’s race-baiting rhetoric rallied him to the nomination and the party united behind him.
At home, there is some angst and strife. For some the world is changing far too quickly; rural and rust-belt whites feel abandoned and left out. For others it is not changing nearly fast enough; people of color, religious minorities and LGBTQ people feel discrimination and demand equality. While much of this has been true for decades, it is starting to reach an inflection point this year. Both whites and blacks feel that race relationships are getting worse, and violence breaks out repeatedly.
Around the world, there is more violence and fear, but no major ground war. America is engaged in air warfare against a guerrilla enemy far from home, seemingly unable to extricate itself from a potentially unsolvable conflict. Americans simultaneously want to stay out of war and to crush the enemy.
Now, although the parallels to 1964 are vast, this by no means guarantees the result will be the same. For starters, at this point in the 1964 campaign Lyndon Johnson led Barry Goldwater by 30 points. Hillary Clinton leads Donald Trump by 3 points, and that represents something of a bump for her. Similarly, as far as I can find, LBJ never set up a private email server in his basement, which made that line of attack more difficult for Republicans in 1964.
But regardless of the outcome, the fact this election bears a strong resemblance to 1964 could be instructional for the years to come. We need look no further than the foreign policy stumbles in the years after the election to see how Johnson went from a 44-state sweep to retirement. And with an dissatisfied left bent on racial justice paired against an increasingly vitriolic right, the possibility for a 1968-style combustion could exist in 2020. And if we are on that same path once again, it seems likely the next election will feature one obvious choice.